Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Winthrop Jordan, my (potential) co-author, and the Great North West Scam

Winthrop Jordan, professor of history and African-American studies at the University of Mississippi, died last week. He was author of the prize-winning White over Black: American Attitudes towards the Negro, 1550-1812 (1968) and other scholarly works. He also wrote, with Leon Litwack, a popular textbook, The United States. It was on this last project that he and I could have been co-authors.

The textbook, published by Prentice Hall, went out of print some years ago. A new publishing firm, North West, picked up the rights to it and offered professors $2,500 (that’s what my letter said; I later learned that some were offered considerably more) to adopt the book for their classes. Well, it wasn’t quite that blatant; the letter offered that huge amount in return for reviewing the book. The publisher’s web site is no longer up, but I cut and pasted parts of it at the time:

“Q: Is adopting the textbook required for this review program?

“A: No, absolutely not. There are many reviewers who are not using the textbook in their classes. However, the application process is competitive and it is often the case that the reviews that come from spending an entire semester using the textbook in class contains more in depth detail and familiarity with the content which best serves our editorial team.”


Well, out of curiosity, I sent in my name as a potential reviewer and received an exam copy of the textbook. It was very cheaply produced. Most of the illustrations--maybe all of them, I don’t recall, and I no longer have the books--were black-and-white illustrations from the Library of Congress, which means, again, cheap. According to the publisher’s web site, the book was $55 for the bookstore, so the price to students would have perhaps $75--a lot of money (this was about five years ago) for what was likely the cheapest-produced textbook around.

Another thing: With other textbooks, the campus bookstore can return unpurchased copies of books and receive a full refund. But North West’s policy said:

“Returns are subject to a 20% restocking fee. Credit will be issued upon receipt of returned books--credit only, no cash refunds.” Neither of these provisions--the restocking fee or the credit instead of cash refund--is typical of reputable publishers.

I realized this was a terrible scam, but I filled out the form to “review” the book for $2,500. To one of their questions (yes, they actually asked this), I honestly replied I would not use the book in my class. I wasn’t surprised when I wasn’t chosen for the review process.

But that’s not the end of the story.

I then received another letter from North West, this time offering me the opportunity to co-author a U.S. History textbook! My co-authors would be Jordan and Litwack.

Here was the deal. I could change up to 20% of the Jordan/Litwack textbook, tailoring it to my approach, leaving out what I didn’t want, switching chapters to fit my syllabus, even adding some of my own material. I would be listed as co-author on the title page! For every copy sold to my students, I would receive $15.

Since it might take a while to do my revisions of the textbook, North West offered me a two year “research and development” period to write my share of the book. During that time, I would use the current edition of the book and receive $15 per copy sold to students. And if, after that two year research and development period, I still hadn’t completed the volume, well, they would just put the contract on an indefinite hold, no problem.

I didnt take them up on this, hence missing the chance to co-author a book with Winthrop Jordan and Leon Litwack.

Jordan and Litwack had nothing to do with this. According to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (reproduced here), they were dismayed by the whole affair.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Helen Keller and "subversive verses"

I was chatting with a couple of folks about how Woody Guthrie's This Land Is Your Land morphed from a song that was critical of certain aspects of American society to one of our great patriotic standards through the omission of a couple of subversive verses. Suddenly Helen Keller came to mind.

Helen Keller was the blind and deaf girl who overcame adversity through the devotion of her teacher, Ann Sullivan. The story is told very movingly in The Miracle Worker. Who can forget that scene at the water pump--the patience of the teacher spelling "water" in her hand over and over, the look of wonder on Helen’s face when she suddenly understood?

What a story! And what a lesson for us all.

But Helen Keller's life didn't end there. As an adult, she became a socialist, disenchanted with much of American life. She toured slums and sweatshops, talked to the poor, and came to an understanding as profound as the one she learned at the water pump. "I had once believed that we were the masters of our fate," she wrote in her memoirs, "that we could mold our lives into any form we pleased. I had overcome blindness and deafness sufficiently to be happy, and I supposed that anyone could come out victorious if he threw himself valiantly into life's struggle. But as I went more and more about the country I learned that I had spoken with assurance on a subject I knew little about. I forgot that I owed my success partly to my birth and environment. I learned that the power to rise in the world is not within the reach of everyone."

Helen Keller's childhood is a success story, a wonderful example of the American Dream, the idea that anyone, even a blind and deaf girl, can make it. It's a story we want to believe. But it's the opposite of the lesson she wanted us to draw from her life, and so the adult Helen Keller has disappeared from our national mythology--the "subversive verses" again forgotten.

Bad history!

The 13th Carnival of Bad History is up at Rob MacDougall's Old Is the New New, and it's a good one. I'm only halfway through it (papers to grade), but so far my favorite is Will Chen's posting on how the FBI viewed It's a Wonderful Life as commie propaganda. Wow. Oh, and check out Rob's comments for even more.

Saturday, February 24, 2007


In the comments to my posting last week on "Defining 'evangelical,'" Ed Darrell wrote:

One of the defining characteristics of people who call themselves "evangelical" to me is that they tend to accept unquestioningly the theological interpretations of John Nelson Darby -- though they don't know him by name, nor do they seem to appreciate that his views are substantially different from traditional Christianity, even traditional American Christianity. I would be quite interested in your view of Darby, the Darby Bible, and its effects on the 21st century evangelical movement in the U.S. Do you cover Darby in the class?

Indeed we do.

As a historian--and this is probably especially true in this class--I’m less interested in “debunking” or criticizing attitudes and actions than I am in asking such questions as Why was this particular view attractive to many Americans at this time? How does it fit into American history? That is, what is its social and cultural context? That's the way I approach these topics.

As America moved from the late 19th to the early 20th century, the times were a-changin’, to coin a phrase. Specifically, I put dispensationalism (and fundamentalism in general) in the context of the rising “culture of modernism.” (The link that Ed provided, above, is a good quick intro to the subject; if you’re interested, click on “dispensationalism” in the second sentence.)

This was in many ways an age of uncertainty, as the old absolute truths crumbled. We often think of Darwin, but he was just part of the scientific assault on old ways of thinking. In physics, Albert Einstein showed that perception depended on where you stood: “truth” was relative. Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle went a step further, showing that “truth” is not only relative, it’s essentially unknowable. (This of course is not what Einstein and Heisenberg said, but this is how people understood their work.)

This loss of absolute truths spread to the social sciences. For example, Margaret Mead and other anthropologists argued that we should study other cultures without comparing them to our own--a sort of cultural relativity. There was Freud and his writings on the mind, and Marx on economics.

The arts and literature saw similar changes. We used to know music, but barbershop quartets and Stephen Foster gave way to atonal music, with Arnold Schoenberg and later John Cage and others. We used to know literature; now we had “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” We used to know what a woman descending a staircase looked like, but Picasso and Marcel Duchamp and other cubists said that there were other ways of seeing her.

Scholars began applying the new “higher criticism” to the scriptures, subjecting the Bible to the same sort of critical analysis that one might apply to any literary text. The 1893 Parliament of World Religions treated exotic religions as if they were worth the same respect as Christianity. (There’s that relativism again.)

Add to that the New Woman, jazz, movies.....

In short, old values and ways of seeing the world were fast disappearing. Given all this, it’s easy to imagine a defensive reaction to all this change--people wanting to hold on to the old traditions and in fact fighting for them. And there was a religious aspect to this defensive reaction: the rise of fundamentalism and the spread of dispensationalist thinking.

Fundamentalists were not simply more religious; rather, they held to a different set of religious beliefs. Where mainstream Protestants felt comfortable adapting their theology to the new science and social mores, fundamentalists said that--no matter what scientists theorized, no matter how Picasso painted a woman sitting in an armchair--there were certain religious principles that, by god, would never change. (The inerrancy of the scriptures is the best known of these “fundamental” truths.)

Dispensationalists, who I would characterize as a subset of fundamentalists (who in turn are a subset of evangelicals), read the Bible as a guide to both history past and history to come, ending with the Rapture, Tribulation, Armageddon, etc. Darby and others offered charts, footnotes, cross-references--in a sense, this was not an anti-intellectual exercise. And by adopting a certain flexibility, at least to the extent that they were able to fit modern events into their story, they were able to “prove” that they were right, and that the Bible is right, over and over.

A great book on this is Paul Boyer’s When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture.

As to the effect of this on modern evangelicalism: I think historians a century from now will see our age as similar to that described above--a general unsettling, loss of traditional ideas, growing “disorganization” of society--and so perhaps it should be no surprise that dispensationalism, and fundamentalism in general, are having a surge of popularity. Witness the sales of Hal Lindsey’s Late, Great Planet Earth and the more recent Left Behind series. I think we might have a dispensationalist in the White House. In his first inaugural address, President Bush said, “Do you not think an angel rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm?” He said it was from a letter from John Page to Thomas Jefferson after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, but the imagery is Biblical--that sentence could have been lifted right off one of those fold-out charts that show the progression to the end times--and that was eight months before September 11, 2001.

As a historian, I say that this is not surprising. As a citizen, I see it as a disturbing trend, and even scary.

When he was running for president in 1912, Theodore Roosevelt exhorted a crowd by saying, “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.” This was a campaign speech, not a theological argument, and everyone accepted Roosevelt’s statement in that sense. With President Bush, we’re not so sure, and the possibility that he sees the United States as playing out a role in a predestined drama, a battle between good and evil that was scripted at the beginning of time, is a bit unsettling.

Anyway, Ed, that’s a longer answer than I intended to your question.

Guthrie's subversive verses

Yesterday afternoon, a colleague and I were walking across campus. As we got close to our old building--we moved into a new one last December--he suggested we walk in and see our old digs. There was a sign on the door that said "No Admittance" while the building was undergoing renovations. I mentioned Woody Guthrie's comment about such signs, and he didn't know what I was talking about. So I told him.

Guthrie, the folk singer known for his songs about Okies and others who were down on their luck in the 1930s, grew tired of hearing Kate Smith's ubiquitous version of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," and so he wrote a response: the song we now call "The Land Is Your Land," except he originally ended each verse with "God Blessed America for Me."

Nowadays, the song is one of our great patriotic standards, but it wasn't always so, at least not in the same sense. After three verses about America's grandeur (“from California, to the New York Island, from the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters," etc.), Guthrie had this:

Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me,
A sign was posted, said "Private Property,"
But on the back side, it didn't say nothing.
God blessed America for me.
(Sometimes he sang, "That side was made for you and me.")

And then there's the sixth verse:

One bright sunny morning, in the shadow of the steeple,
By the relief office, I saw my people.
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering
If God blessed America for me?

My friend said, "Ahh, the subversive verses!" I told him I was going to have to use that. And now I have.

By the way, we didn't go into the building.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Paszkiewicz gets a fisking

It took Ed Darrell (at Millard Fillmore's Bathtub) a while to get around to it-- but he has posted a thorough and well-deserved fisking of David Paszkiewicz, the NJ teacher who spent more classroom time trying to save souls than actually teaching history.

Good job, Ed!

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Defining "evangelical"

Tomorrow in my History of American Religion class, we’re going to start talking about the rise of evangelicalism and its impact on nineteenth-century American culture. One of the problems we’ll have to address is exactly what “evangelical” means.

I usually start by reading a column Nicholas Kristof wrote for the New York Times a few years ago (March 4, 2003) called “God, Satan and the Media.” (The only free version of the column I can find online is here.) In the column, Kristof noted that although almost half of Americans claim to be evangelicals, the rest of American society doesn’t seem to understand them. The main point I got from Kristof’s column is that he himself doesn't understand the word “evangelical”--which makes him pretty much like the rest of us.

“Evangelicals are increasingly important in every aspect of American culture,” Kristof wrote. “Among the best-selling books in America are Tim LaHaye's Christian ‘left behind’ series about the apocalypse; about 50 million copies have been sold. One of America’s most prominent television personalities is Benny Hinn, watched in 190 countries, but few of us have heard of him because he is an evangelist.”

Kristof described the popular series of Left Behind books as if the apocalypse is an evangelical thing. He is apparently unaware that not all evangelicals believe in that version of the end times, or that several major denominations (including Methodists and Presbyterians) have actually come out against the “dispensationalist” theology of the books.

He also confused evangelicals with Pentecostals. Later in the article, he mentioned people speaking in tongues in his hometown of Yamhill, Oregon. “In the evangelical tinge to its faith, Yamhill is emblematic of a huge chunk of Middle America,” he wrote. But while Pentecostals, who believe that the gifts of the Holy Spirit include speaking in tongues, might be evangelicals, not all evangelicals are Pentecostals. And despite Kristof’s assertion, not every evangelical follows faith healer Benny Hinn or even knows who he is.

“President Bush has said that he doesn't believe in evolution (he thinks the jury is still out),” Kristof continued, getting at another evangelical belief. But by equating evangelicalism with a belief in creationism, Kristof confused evangelicals with fundamentalists, who insist on a literal reading of the scriptures.

Kristof wrote of “evangelicals’ discomfort with condoms and sex education.” Many evangelicals are supportive of and even active in sex education (and not necessarily the abstinence-only approach).

Kristof’s article confirms that “evangelical” is a slippery word, hard to pin down with any precision.

Historically, the distinguishing aspect of “evangelical” was the conversion experience--what has come to be known, among many, as being “born again.” This was part of a general trend away from Calvinist predestination, which said that eternal salvation is granted only to an exclusive few, “the elect,” and that nothing we do can save us. Evangelicals were those who believed that we do have a role in salvation. (The fancy word for this is “arminianism,” named for Dutch Theologian Jacobus Arminius.) That was pretty much it. Sex education, evolution, speaking in tongues, dispensationalism, and faith healing simply had nothing to do with a definition of “evangelical.”

Of course, everything’s changed now, leading to confusion for everyone, from NYTimes’s columnists to my students (and their professor). D.G. Hart, in That Old-Time Religion in America: Evangelical Protestantism in the Twentieth Century, describes what happened: The current sense of “evangelical” came into common usage around 1950, when conservative Protestant leaders, wanting to embrace the biblical basis of fundamentalism but make it more appealing, co-opted the word to tap into a religious movement that was growing outside of churches--through organizations (like Youth for Christ), publications (such as Christianity Today), and radio and television.

Hart’s “recipe” for evangelicalism: “Combine two cups of inerrancy, one cup of conversion, and a pinch of doctrinal affirmations; form into a patchwork of parachurch agencies, religious celebrities, and churches; season with peppy music professionally performed; and bake every generation.” This is from a later Hart book, Deconstructing Evangelicalism, in which he says that “evangelicalism needs to be relinquished as a religious identity because it does not exist. In fact it is the wax nose of twentieth-century American Protestantism.”

So “evangelical” doesn’t mean what it used to mean (if it means anything any more). Take Jimmy Carter. He’s a good evangelical, in my book (and in his). But does he fit Kristof’s description? Historically, we should ask WWJD?, with the “J” meaning, of course, Jimmy Carter. (Today, it’s more WWWD.)

Kristof is wrong, even with the new definition of "evangelical." Still, his column is a good way to begin our discussion.

Update: See here.

Kristof is not the only one to make this mistake. For example (lots of examples), see the comments for the movie Jesus Camp at Amazon or at IMDB. Not all evangelicals are like that, not by a long shot, but the reviewer comments often say that sort of thing.

Part of the above was originally published in the Cartersville Daily Tribune News.

"Stairway to Heaven" times 101

WFMU's blog archive has a wonderful posting titled "Stairways to Heaven, Stairways to Hell," linking to 101 versions of "Stairway to Heaven" (Zeppelin's, not Sedaka's):

Here are 101 versions of the song that doesn't remain the same, depending on whether it's the Australian music hall version, the Gilligan's Island version, the backwards version, the backwards splice-and-dice quarter note version, the glass harmonica version, the Doors version, the reggae version and on and on (all MP3s).

Some are good; many are so bad, they're great.

I first saw (and heard) this last year, but I didn't have a blog then, so here it is.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Carnivals for the weekend!!

Here's some good reading for the weekend--

Georgia on My Mind has the 4th Georgia Carnival, with contributions from Alone on a Limb, Peach Pundit, The Spacey Gracey Review, and over a dozen more of the state's best bloggers.

The 48th History Carnival is up at Martin Rundkvist's Aardvarchaeology. Martin is a member of ScienceBlogs, an impressive bunch of folks and home of some of my favorite bloggers. Among his offerings for this carnival is a nice piece from Georgia's own History Is Elementary (who, by the way, will be hosting the next History Carnival!).

The Education Wonks have the 106th Carnival of Education, featuring Mike Bock's wonderful "The Education of John Adams" and nearly fifty other postings on education, from how to deal with ADHD parents, notes passed in class, and "new" student names, to discussions of assessment, "professional development," and textbook costs. Oh, and look at this-- History Is Elementary will be hosting the next version of this carnival as well! She's going to be busy, but we'll be looking for good things from her.

Finally, Action Skeptics gives us the 54th Skeptics' Circle, "as done by Mickey Spillane (or someone very much like him)," as Orac says.


Thursday, February 15, 2007

Beat at my own game!

Last December, I posted a piece on how I found a use of the word “y’all” in 1858, a full half-century before the esteemed Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation.

Yesterday, Languagehat, a wonderful linguistics blog, linked to my posting, which means a lot of people who know a lot about words finally read it. Ben Zimmer, an editor for Oxford University Press’s American dictionaries, left a comment: “Barry Popik has found citations for y'all dating to 1856-57, from Alfred W. Arrington's novel The Rangers and Regulators of the Tanaha, or Life Among the Lawless: A Tale of the Republic of Texas.” I checked, and sure enough, Ben and Barry are right.

Here are the relevant sentences from Arrington’s book:

"Why, heern as how the regerlators wur guine to cotch y' all and swing y' up to dry, us thought we'd better heave to, and gin y' a lift; but when we fotch up in the dead man's grove, as them call it, and I guess as how 'twill bar a wusser name herearter, all in a twinkling, quicker nor y' could say Jack Robison, the bushes all blazed like a burnin' prairie, and the rifles roared behind every tree, and our boys dropped like pigeon-shootin'; and then the rest on 'em squalled fur mercy, and wur tooke alive” (p. 206).

He then made a small opening, and inquired, "ar y'all alive and kickin' in thar?" (p. 355).

Barry Popik, I salute you, sir!

And thanks, Ben, for passing this on.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

It’s a crazy, mixed-up world out there

From the Cartersville Daily Tribune News:

A Bartow County couple will go before a magistrate judge today to see if they will be arrested for allegedly stalking a Kennesaw police officer by installing cameras to track neighborhood speeders.

Lee and Teresa Sipple spent $1,200 mounting three video cameras and a radar speed unit outside their home, which is at the bottom of a hill. They have said they did so in hopes of convincing neighbors to slow down to create a safe environment for their son.

The Sipples allegedly caught Kennesaw police officer Richard Perrone speeding up to 17 mph over the speed limit. Perrone alerted Bartow authorities, who in turn visited the Sipples' home to tell them Perrone intended to press charges against them for stalking.

Something ain’t right here….

UPDATE: Seems like everybody already knew about this but me. I mentioned it to a couple of students today-- "Oh, yeah, I heard about that," etc. Apparently it was all over the radio and TV. If anyone is interested in a fuller story--and it's pretty interesting-- see here or here.

UPDATE II: World returns to normal; rogue cop agrees to drop charges.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Me, a "thinking blogger"?

Will you look at that-- I've just been given a Thinking Blogger Award! Unexpected, perhaps undeserved, but there it is-- thanks to Brian, at Primordial Blog. Now, according to the rules, I have to nominate five bloggers whose postings make me think. Let's see, there are so many....

Here are my choices:

Bitch Ph.D.

Confessions of a Community College Dean

Boston 1775

History Is Elementary

Clio Bluestocking Tales

There they are: Five blogs that I find not only interesting but insightful and thought-provoking.

Congratulations, folks. You're my Thinking Bloggers!

Monday, February 12, 2007

Happy Birthday, Darwin and Lincoln!

Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday to you,
Happy birthday, Abe and Charlie,
Happy birthday to you!

Today is the birthday of both Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln. Both were born on the same day of the same year: Feb. 12, 1809. Quite a coincidence, ranking up there with Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both dying on July 4, 1826. (Actually that's a neater coincidence, being the 50th anniversary of the approval of the Declaration of Independence.)

Has anyone done a Lincoln/Darwin parallel thing, like what we used to see for Lincoln and Kennedy? You know: Abraham Lincoln was elected to Congress in 1846; John F. Kennedy in 1946. Lincoln was elected President in 1860; Kennedy in 1960. The names Lincoln and Kennedy each contain seven letters. Both were particularly concerned with civil rights. Both wives lost a child while living in the White House. Both Presidents were shot on a Friday, and both were shot in the head. Both assassins, John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, were known by their three names. Both names are composed of fifteen letters. Both Presidents were assassinated by Southerners. Both were succeeded by Southerners named Johnson. And so on. (And on and on.... Some of these lists have dozens of “parallels.”)

Students sometimes ask me about that. Pretty spooky, huh? Well, No. John Allen Paulos, author of A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper, wrote that these lists of parallels are really meaningless coincidences. Paulos told how John Leavy, a computer programmer, constructed a similar list for two other assassinated presidents, William McKinley and James Garfield. “Both of these presidents were Republicans who were born and bred in Ohio. They were both Civil War veterans, and both served in the House of Representatives. Both were ardent supporters of protective tariffs and the gold standard, and both of their last names contained eight letters. After their assassinations they were replaced with their vice presidents, Theodore Roosevelt and Chester Alan Arthur, who were both from New York City, who both sported mustaches, and who both had names containing seven letters. Both presidents were slain during the first September of their respective terms by assassins, Charles Guiteau and Leon Czolgosz, who had foreign-sounding names.”

Such lists invite parody. Someone came up with the parallels between Elvis and Jesus. Jesus said “Love thy neighbor”; Elvis said “Don’t be cruel.” Jesus is the Lord’s shepherd; Elvis dated Cybill Shepherd. Jesus was part of the Trinity; Elvis’s first band was a trio. Jesus walked on water; Elvis surfed. Both were Capricorns (December 25 and January 8). Jesus was called “King of Israel”; Elvis was called “King of Rock ’n’ Roll.” Both had five letters in their names. (For some reason, these people put a lot of stock in how many letters are in a name.) Jesus lived in a state of grace in a near-eastern land; Elvis lived in Graceland in a nearly eastern state. In good taste or not, these sorts of connections (coincidences) abound.

Well, if someone can do Elvis and Jesus, why can't we do Lincoln and Darwin? You know, Darwin sailed on the Beagle, Lincoln had a beagle, that sort of thing. It's too late for this year, but let me know if you think of anything; I’ll save them and post them on Feb. 12, 2008. That will help us all get ready for the big double bicentennial the following year!

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Can't see the family forest for the trees

Today I read a press release from Family Forest (a play on the term "family tree," I guess; the company sells genealogical resources) announcing "its discovery that presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama's . . . mother, Ann Dunham, [has] a number of her ancestral pathways leading back to early colonial Virginia and New England." Obama's ancestors include his "12th great grandfather--the Hon. Laurence Washington, who built Sulgrave Manor in Northamptonshire, England. Over the course of five centuries, according to recorded history, he became the ancestor of President George Washington, General George S. Patton, Governor Adlai Stevenson, President Jimmy Carter, and Quincy Jones, Jr."


Three years ago, Family Forest traced the family connections of George W. Bush and John Kerry, the two presidential candidates in 2004. According to that press release, Kerry and Bush are 16th cousins, three times removed. This means that the great (times 15) grandfather of one was the great (times 18) grandfather of the other. How far do we have to go to find this common ancestor? Probably to the early 1500s, probably somewhere in Europe.

This is amazing. I’ll bet not one person in a hundred today could tell you the name of one of his sixteen great-great-grandparents, and yet here are two families that can trace at least one of their lines back four centuries. (Actually, much further, as both Bush and Kerry can claim Marc Anthony as their 55th great-grandfather.)

Turns out that Bush and Kerry are related to a lot of people besides each other. The web site lists over sixty famous people, from Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart to Henry David Thoreau and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and their relationship to Kerry and Bush (usually both). Mormon leader Brigham Young was distantly related to Kerry (11th cousin 4 times removed), but more closely to Bush (5th cousin 6 times removed). On the other hand, Kerry is closer to Obama kinsman General George Patton (13th cousin once removed) than is Bush (17th cousin twice removed). Both are Charles Darwin's cousin: Kerry, 11th, 4 times removed; Bush, 14th, 5 times removed.

Between the two of them, they are related to 24 American presidents. They’re both related to 22; Bush is also distant cousin to another two. Abraham Lincoln was Kerry’s 20th cousin, Bush’s 7th (no longer bothering with the "removeds"); George Washington (another Obama kinsman) was Bush’s 11th cousin, Kerry’s 8th.

Some of these numbers, upon just a moment’s reflection, boggle the mind. Brooke Shields is Kerry’s 22st cousin, Bush’s 11th. Ernest Hemingway was Kerry’s 20th, Bush’s 22nd. Agatha Christie was Kerry’s 18th cousin, Bush’s 20th.

How many 20th cousins does a person have? The number varies, of course, depending on how many children your great (19 times) grandparents had, and how many children those children had, and so on. Let’s assume that each couple on the family tree had three children who grew up to have three of their own, etc. Historically, this is a conservative figure. In colonial times, the birth rate was double that or more. But let’s use three children per couple for our example.

With those numbers, one set of your grandparents will give you 6 first cousins. Your child will have 18 second cousins, then the next generation will have 54 third cousins, and so forth. By the time you get down to seventeenth cousins, the number would be 258 million, almost as many people as there are in the United States (just over 300 million.) Add three more generations, to twentieth cousins, and the number is nearly 7 billion, a little over the population of the whole planet today (6.6 billion).

Isn’t that amazing? We have more twentieth cousins than there are people in the world.

But there’s more. Those 7 billion are through just one set of common ancestors. You have two sets of first cousins, one through your mother’s parents and another through your father’s, and four sets of second cousins, and so on. Theoretically (it never works out this smoothly in real life), you would have over a million different sets of twentieth cousins, each set consisting of 7 billion people.

No wonder Bush and Kerry (and Obama) are related to so many people. I guess we all are.

But I still sorta doubt those press releases.

This posting originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the Cartersville Daily Tribune News, Feb. 22, 2004.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Debunking Dade County's "secession"

Georgia on My Mind has a nice posting on Dade County, Georgia. Legend has it that, back in 1860, when the state didn't secede fast enough to suit some of the hot-blooded citizens of Dade, the county decided to secede from both Georgia and the Union.

According to a 1945 article in the Atlanta Constitution, “Folks in Dade were big slave-owners and rabid secessionists." Representative Bob Tatum made a fiery speech in the state legislature: “By the gods, gentlemen, if Georgia does not vote to secede immediately from the Union, Dade county will secede from the state and become the independent state of Dade.”

When the state refused to act, Tatum left Milledgeville (the capital at the time) and returned to Dade, where he conducted a public meeting on the courthouse square in the county seat of Trenton. Under his guidance, the people of Dade County voted to secede from Georgia and the nation. After the vote, according to the newspaper, “the impatient Tatum actually sent a secession proclamation to Washington.”

Although neither Georgia nor the United States recognized the act of secession, Dade kept its claim of independence until the summer of 1945 when, flush with patriotism and national pride over the coming victory in World War II, the people of the county voted to rejoin the state and the Union.

The 1945 "reunion" was covered widely by the press. Even the New York Times reported “Dade County Ends ‘Secession.’” President Harry Truman sent a telegram of congratulations from Washington, ending with “Welcome home, pilgrims.”

The story of the county’s secession and the resulting Independent State of Dade is still told and accepted. The problem is, it seems that it never happened.

Professor Ellis Merton Coulter, of the University of Georgia, published an article in the Georgia Historical Quarterly back in 1957 that convincingly refutes the story of Dade’s secession.

First of all, Coulter pointed out that the people of Dade were not “big slave-owners.” “Dade County in 1860 had only 300 slaves owned by 46 people out of a total white population of 2,765,” he wrote, “and of those slaveowners only an even dozen held more than ten and only two owned as many as thirty.”

Throughout the state, there was a correlation between slave ownership and support for secession. Perhaps the people of Dade bucked the trend? But Coulter pointed out that the county’s delegates to the secession convention of January 1861 voted against every secession measure, and those delegates had been elected by a popular vote that favored, by a margin of 9 to 1, the “cooperationist” (anti-secession) candidates.

This was very much an anti-secessionist section of the state. In neighboring Walker County, a man wrote a letter in Feb. 1861 to Governor Joseph E. Brown: “We, the people of Walker County and Dade County, Georgia, do not intend to submit to [the] decision of the secession movement. . . . If southern Georgia wants to leave the Union, let her go. But, we want to stay in the Union."

What about Tatum’s speech threatening the county’s secession if Georgia didn’t act? Coulter searched the major newspaper across the state and found “not the slightest indication of such a speech,” and surely such a speech in the General Assembly would have been reported.

The alleged secession proclamation sent to Washington has never been found.

Tatum himself served two more years in the Georgia House, something he would have been unlikely to do if he believed his county had left the state.

According to Coulter, no one has been able to produce a single contemporary account of the county’s secession.

Ironically, the phrase “the state of Dade” was used even before the Civil War, referring to the county's geographical isolation. Because of the presence of Lookout Mountain, there was no way to drive into the county from Georgia until the late 1930s; one had to leave the state and enter Dade from Alabama or Tennessee.

source: George Cram Railroad and County Map of Georgia (1885), available from the Historical Atlas of Georgia Counties

The New Georgia Encyclopedia has a good article on Dade County history.

Primordial Blog

Recommended by both Ed at Millard Fillmore's Bathtub and PZ at Pharyngula, a new blog, and it's a good one: Primordial Blog ("Life at the Intersection of Science, Religion, Politics and Culture").

Posted yesterday-- The Most Disgusting Creation Story:

The most disgusting (and my personal favourite) creation story comes from the annals of Egyptian Mythology. The story is narrated by the creator god Neb-er-tcher himself. Listen to how he does it: ....

Thus endeth the quotation. You're going to have to check out Promordial Blog for the next sentence.

Keep up the good work, Brian!

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Carnival time!

For your weekend reading pleasure, Georgia on My Mind has the 3rd Georgia Carnival, and the 47th History Carnival (in which one of my own recent postings is introduced by Sen. Lisa Murkowski--well, that's what it says!) is up at Progressive Historians.

With all due respect to the Senator, I value elle's mention more highly.